I happened to be at home in St. Louis when Dizzy Gillespie was playing at this new jazz joint near the baseball park, called The Gourmet Rendezvous, owned by jazz DJ Spider Burks, so I went. I was still relatively new at Downbeat at that time. This is the early ’70s. I started in 1969 and this must have been ’72. I asked Dizzy if I could interview him and take him to lunch. He said yes, so I picked him up at the hotel and took him to this Italian restaurant in St. Louis called Kemoll’s. It’s where I used to take dates. It was my favorite restaurant in St. Louis. I just turned on the tape recorder and recorded everything we talked about. I remember asking him why the music was called bebop. Dizzy said it was because people couldn’t remember the titles of the tunes. They would say “play that bebop tune” and Dizzy would ask “what tune was that?” And the person would scat “be ah ba doo ba de be bop!” He said that even the musicians could not remember the titles. Dizzy would call out “Max Is Making Wax” and they would look at him and say “which one is that?” And then Dizzy had to scat it.
Fat Cats at Lunch
We talked about how he had literally died and had been brought back. Dizzy said he had been “on the Grand Concourse, and there was Charlie Parker and Chano Pozo!” Then he was resuscitated. Dizzy talked about the evolution of jazz and said it was like the evolution of religion. He said, “if you think about religion, there is Moses, then there is Jesus and then there is Mohammad, and then there is Bahá’u’lláh (the prophet of the Baha’i religion).” He was a very devout Baha’i. He said it’s the same as it is in jazz. On the trumpet, “there was Louis Armstrong, then there was Roy Eldridge, and then there was me, and then there was Miles Davis.” Dizzy said how each prophet and each original voice came along. That was extraordinary! He said that he thought Fats Navarro was meant to be the next great trumpet player, but he died young.
It was just a wonderful conversation. The twist about being at this wonderful Italian restaurant, one of the best in St. Louis—Dizzy ordered beef stroganoff! Why it was even on the menu, I don’t know. I remember that mine was a pepperoni calzone. I just essentially edited everything we talked about and printed the Q&A in Downbeat. I called it “Fat Cats at Lunch.”
Over the years, I would run into him and he would always say something or do something funny. One time, I said something about him running for president and Dizzy said he can’t do it anymore. He was officially pulling back from running for president in the future. Because it used to be at Monterey and all those jazz festivals, people would walk around with Dizzy for president t-shirts. There were even pictures of him in a top hat and all that. He said no, because Baha’i’s are not supposed to hold public office. He got out the book of Bahá’u’lláh and he read the passages about that to me. I wrote it up as if it was an AP story—like a newswires story “Candidate Announces Withdrawing from…” It was printed in Downbeat very seriously. Nat Hentoff in his annual summation of what happened in jazz that year for Playboy—he used to write one every year for Playboy when they used to write about jazz. He opened the piece with “what an extraordinary moment it is” and a downturn that Dizzy was no longer running. He took it very seriously and played it that way just as I did. I thought that was a hoot.
Another time, Dizzy was playing in Bloomington, Indiana. I used to live in Bloomington for several years. So we are talking before he played a gig at a pub called The Bluebird, and he handed me the trumpet—THE TRUMPET with the upturned bell. He said, “run some warm water through this”—and I replied “what?” He countered with, “run some warm water through this.” I’m walking through the crowd holding the “Holy Grail” and not knowing what he’s talking about. I see a trumpet playing friend of mine, David Miller, and I said, “he wants me to run water through this!” My friend looked at it and knew that was Dizzy’s trumpet—THE TRUMPET—and he just about fell on his knees. Finally, I got to behind the bar where there was a sink and I still didn’t know what he meant. Dizzy walked up behind me and says “here like this” and he stuck the bell under the faucet and ran water through the trumpet. I never knew anybody did that. That was amazing. I will never forget that moment, walking through the crowd as if holding the “Ark of the Covenant.”
The Blues with Muddy
Always a total delight. I heard him at the first and only Downbeat Jazz Festival before I ever started writing for Downbeat. This is 50 years ago, 1965 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Muddy Waters was playing, and he was playing “Got My Mojo Workin’” at the climax of the gig, and out came Dizzy dancing the boogaloo with his trumpet. He started playing with Muddy’s band, and then out came James Moody and Al Grey, and they became this impromptu horn section. It was one of those great moments that you never can forget and that you know will never happen again. Just wonderful to hear Dizzy playing with Muddy Waters. Muddy loved it. They’re playing the blues, and they all solo’d, and the band kept rocking. James Moody went nuts. He played two whole choruses.
I have so many memories like that, like being with him on a Caribbean cruise and seeing him on the beach sitting like a Buddha, surrounded by girls in bikinis. And just so many times I heard him playing. I remember a great concert at Carnegie Hall with Dizzy and about a dozen drummers on platforms staggered around the stage. There was Art Blakey, and there was Michael Carvin, all these great drummers and Dizzy. That was the whole concert, just amazing. Dizzy was in love with rhythm.
Dirty Carrot Juice
But my best story is… He was playing in Bloomington and he was staying at a hotel that was a block from my apartment. I called him up and I asked, “do you need anything?” and he said “no, come over.” I came over, and he opened the door, and he’s standing there in his underwear. He was wearing an old-fashioned undershirt and briefs. And he said “is it 1:30?” That’s how he answered the door. I said no, it was like 12:30 and he waives me in. He goes to a wet bar in this little suite that he was staying in. On the bar was a bushel of carrots like straight from the side of the road somewhere, some farmer was selling. They were all dirty, like right out of the earth. Dizzy goes over and there’s a blender on the bar, and he pulls a bunch of carrots off. He doesn’t wash them, he doesn’t peel them, he doesn’t pull the stalks off. He just shoves all of these dirty carrots into the blender. He turns on the blender, and he pours out what comes out of the blender into a glass. And it’s this orange sludge with little bits of green and black. The green being the stalks and the black being the dirt—actual earth! He offers it to me and I tell him no thanks. That was, I thought, “pure Dizzy.”
As the World Turns
We talked about this or that and he periodically asked if it was 1:30 yet. And finally it was 1:30 and he ran to the television. And he turned it on and on comes “As the World Turns”—the soap opera that played for decades on radio and then television. He sat on the bed looking at it like a little kid fascinated by clowns or something. He was just like a little kid, almost quaking with delight, and I’m watching him. Dizzy was one of my gods, and he was absolutely enraptured by the soap opera. He’d start talking to the TV “oh, Doctor Bob, he’s so good.” He’d say things like that as characters would come on. At one point, he lept up and screamed at the television “That bitch! I can’t believe that bitch is doing that!” I’m just falling out, this is truly surreal, and a commercial comes on, and he whips out a reefer and lights it up. I never was really into smoking dope, but takes some puffs and offers it to me. I absolutely remember thinking “How do I not smoke a joint with Dizzy Gillespie watching a soap opera? How do I not? I’m already down the rabbit hole!” So I got stoned watching Dizzy watching “As the World Turns.”
That was almost 40 years ago. And I’ve never smoked a joint since. So that I can always say the last time I smoked a joint was with Dizzy Gillespie watching a soap opera. I’m not kidding. Every time anybody’s ever offered me a hit off of a joint, I can say “No, I don’t do that. The last time I smoked a joint was with Dizzy Gillespie watching a soap opera.” I must have said that countless times.
A twist to this is that Eileen Fulton was the star of “As the World Turns” for years. She was the star at the beginning. She was the dangerous dame and then she as she got older she became the dangerous grandmother and then just more of a matriarch of the show. So she was on the show for decades and she got into jazz from listening to WBGO. She heard us on a fund drive offering (for a certain pledge) “you can come in and be a host for an hour and play any music that you want to play.” She bought it and she came in. She wanted to be with me and she just brought in some records that she liked. We sat and talked and it was wonderful, she was a delight. Of course, I told her the story about watching “As the World Turns” with Dizzy, and I got to the point in the story where Dizzy shouted “that bitch! I can’t believe that bitch is doing that” Eileen leapt up and said “I was that bitch!” She was so happy. She said she loved Dizzy. Dizzy used to come to the set of “As the World Turns.” They wanted to get him on to the show eventually, like to have Dizzy playing at a country club dance. Some sort of soap opera shenanigans are going on, and over in the background there’s Dizzy Gillespie playing. But it never worked that way. I never forget all the times that I hung with Dizzy. I heard him play so many times, but there was no moment quite like that moment of watching a soap opera with Dizzy Gillespie.
Years later, he came back for his diamond jubilee, or whatever it was called, at the Blue Note (jazz club in New York). He had different groups every night. So I came down there. The woman who was representing him, Virginia Wicks, called me up and said he really wants to talk to you. I said “Really? I’m amazed that he remembers me.” So I went down, and we sat in the dressing room at the Blue Note. And, again, I just printed whatever we talked about Dizzy was always on some other planet while he was earthbound at the same time. He was just a delightful person. He literally was surreal. He was literally like someone out of Alice in Wonderland. Michael Carvin used to play with him and Michael tells great stories. He says one night at the hotel (where they were staying) at like 4:00 in the morning, there’s a knock on his door. He opens the door, and Dizzy was standing in the hallway of the hotel stark naked. He said “I got this great rhythm!” He used to demonstrate rhythms slapping with his hands. He started slapping this rhythm. Michael was looking at a naked Dizzy Gillespie slapping his hands with his rhythm, and all he could say was “that’s really great Diz. Let’s play something with that tomorrow.” Dizzy walked naked back down the hall. There are thousands of Dizzy stories. Paquito D’Rivera and I did a show recently, and he was telling stories about Dizzy. He and I could just sit and tell Dizzy stories forever. More of them are flying into my head as I’m talking now.